Elevate Difference

An Endless Winter’s Night: An Anthology of Mother-Daughter Stories

When it comes to works of literature, one key element that can make or break the brilliance of the creation is translation. Indian literature, specifically, has a history of poor translations. This has led some writers (Salman Rushdie, for example) to write nearly exclusively in English in order for the essence of one’s work to reach a broader audience. Although I understood this dilemma on an abstract level (a translation is only as good as its translator’s linguistic skill, creative aptitude, and cultural understanding), it wasn’t until I came to Kolkata and began to learn Bengali that the concreteness of the problem set in. As the blending of a new language and culture settled itself into my brain and being, I started to read Bengali novels in English. That is when the truly abysmal nature of the re-fashioned stories I was reading clicked into place what I’d been unable to firmly grasp before.

The experience has made me wary of translations, but I decided to give Ira Raja’s and Kay Souter’s An Endless Winter’s Night a shot because it is published by a respected feminist press in Delhi. The book also contains stories by authors whose work I admire. Raja’s and Souter’s awareness of the shortcomings of translations rightly prompted them to give the writers’ words the respect they deserve by bringing on board (mostly) native speakers to tackle each piece, and listing the translator at the end of each chapter, as well in the final list of contributors, gives credit (for better or worse) where credit is aptly due. As it turns out, though, the problem with An Endless Winter’s Night is less the downfall of translated works and more the problem of collected ones: inconsistency.

Granted, this is a case of beauty being in the eye of the beholder, but some stories struck me more than others, and the ones that didn’t nearly bored me to tears. Usha Yadav’s “The Swan” starts the anthology on a high note, providing an inward look at the maternal joy suffered (yes, suffered) by a middle class, housebound Indian mother at the hands of her willfully oblivious and selfish husband. I contentedly turned the page in anticipation of an equally engaging work, but the next piece, “Miriam,” chugged and clunked its way through appalling prose and unfulfilled potential. (Interestingly, this was one of the chapters originally penned in English.) This juxtaposition follows throughout the book with as many hits (“The Lies My Mother Told Me,” “Lucid Moments,” “A Doll for Rukmani”) as misses (“Allegra,” “Killing Abhimanyu,” “One Zero One,” “The Chest”). And by the time I closed the back cover of the book, I had to pause to consider its merits overall.

Ultimately, I decided the purchase is worth it. If nothing else, one should take time to appreciate An Endless Winter’s Night’s skillful translations and the revealing intimacy of the stories. But while reading, if you feel a yawn coming on, feel free to skip to the next chapter. You may be holding fool’s gold now, but that doesn’t mean you should stop looking for the real thing.

Written by: Mandy Van Deven, February 25th 2010